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NATO strengthens ties with Asian-Pacific democracies, angering China

The leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand took part in the Vilnius summit, but the Allies disagree on how far the organization should be involved in that region

OTAN
From left, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese; Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg; New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins; and the president of South Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol, on Wednesday at the NATO summit in Vilnius.DPA vía Europa Press (DPA vía Europa Press)

The NATO summit in Vilnius was dominated by Russia’s war against Ukraine, but this did not stop the Allies from discussing the rise of China and how to address it. For the second consecutive year, the leaders of four major democracies in the Asia-Pacific region — Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — were invited to NATO’s annual meeting. Their presence at the summit was a sign of the alliance’s wish to strengthen ties with nations with democratic values in the Asia-Pacific. The move has angered China, which said it resolutely opposes NATO’s “eastward movement into the Asia-Pacific region” and warned any action threatening Beijing’s rights would be met with a strong response.

NATO has been building ties with democratic nations in the region, but this does not mean that there is consensus among the Allies on how far these relationships should go. The United States is seeking to firm up a network of democratic countries in the Pacific that can stand up to challenges from authoritarian countries, and it wants NATO to be one of the vehicles to achieve this goal. Washington is pushing for a very firm position on Beijing, evidencing its distrust of what it sees as the country’s growing authoritarian drift. While the main European Allies share the same concern, they do not want to adopt positions that could escalate tensions.

These divisions are reflected within NATO. They became apparent at the Madrid summit last year, when the allies negotiated a new strategic concept that included China for the first time, and they resurfaced at the Vilnius summit over the proposal to set up a NATO administrative office in Japan. Tokyo has long wanted closer ties with its Atlantic allies, and the project — clearly supported by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg — seemed to be taking shape. In the end, however, it was put on hold due to the vocal opposition from France, and the implicit opposition from Germany and other allies. France openly stated that it would be a mistake to expand NATO’s presence in Asia-Pacific.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that while he believes NATO should have partners in other regions, it should not be forgotten that “NATO means North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” “Whatever people say, geography is stubborn. The Indo-Pacific is not the North Atlantic,” Macron said after the NATO summit in Vilnius. “I think we made the right decision to stick to a close partnership, coordination and strategic intimacy but not wanting to expand the areas of conflict because it’s not the right time and it’s not why we’re here.”

Stoltenberg said that while the idea of opening a NATO office in Tokyo had been shelved for the time being, it remained on the table. China strongly criticized the project a few months ago.

What NATO has offered Japan is a cooperation program that plans to strengthen links in cybersecurity, space and information exchange. “No other partner is closer to NATO than Japan,” said Stoltenberg, who stressed that “security is not regional, but global.”

Back in January, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned that “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow” — a reference to the conflict over Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. Tokyo supports Washington’s move to create a democratic front in the Pacific, and has seconded several of the country’s moves to restrict key technology exports to Beijing.

The final communiqué of the Vilnius summit uses the same firm language to describe the threat of China, in line with the position established at last year’s NATO summit in Madrid and the new strategic concept that was approved there. The text argues that China “strives to subvert the rules-based international order,” remains “opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up” and warns that NATO is prepared to defend its common values. The position has angered China, with state news agency Xinhua accusing NATO of “spreading its tentacles to the Asia-Pacific region” and “endangering peace.”

Australia is another key country in the front against the Chinese rise. The country is part of an alliance with the U.S. and the U.K. — called Aukus — through which it will receive a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines and help develop of hypersonic weapons. Australia is also supporting Kyiv’s war effort, and in Vilnius, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed a new delivery of 30 Bushmaster armored transport vehicles from the country.

South Korea, like Japan, has a representative office outside NATO headquarters in Brussels and is looking forward to the prospect of tightening ties, though so far it has been more cautious than Tokyo in terms of public statements or restrictive measures against China. The South Korean government has also been reluctant to provide military support to Ukraine. The country is under pressure from its allies, who are keen for Seoul to provide some form of military supply, in view of its remarkable ammunition and weapons production capacity and its large arsenal of weapons — a product of the tension from its unresolved conflict with North Korea.

On Wednesday, the closing day of the NATO summit, Pyongyang fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. According to the Japanese government, the missile flew for about 70 minutes and traveled a distance of about 621 miles (1,000 kilometers).

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